It's Nut-Cutting Time at HISD

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There was no talk of raising taxes as Houston ISD trustees reviewed a list of proposed reductions to the district's budget next year and prepared to approve the first step in a notification process calling for fewer teachers by fall 2011. Cuts to schools alone came in at $65 million.

All of which left Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, searching for the right body part to attach to the school board members. "They have no balls. No, they're spineless," she told Hair Balls. A small tax increase would easily wipe out the projected $171 million deficit from the shortfall in state funding, she said.

With reductions in other departments including the central office, the district is still looking at having to make another $60 million in cuts even if trustees approve all the superintendent's recommendations presented Monday.

Included in the budget cut package to date is a $58 million reduction in the amount of money HISD gives its schools for its "weighted" students. In HISD's method of funding, schools receive extra money for students who are special ed, gifted and talented, at-risk or are limited English speakers.

If approved, every school will see a $275 reduction in the amount it receives for each weighted student. Elementary schools would get $3,257 per student, middle schools $3,282 and high schools $3,246 plus a state-mandated $192 per student.

In addition, the board will be voting on reducing the amount given to "unique PUA" students at nine schools for a total of $4.6 million in savings -- although Grier has decided to step back from earlier, more draconian cuts proposed for some of the schools such as T.H. Rogers, which is now looking at losing $447,162 instead of as much as $2.5 million.

Grier was questioned closely by trustee Manuel Rodriguez about the change in course on Rogers. Rodriguez wanted to know if Rogers is fully funded for its special ed students and its gifted ones, why then does it deserve the extra unique PUA money. "At the same time there are other schools whose needs aren't being met," Rodriguez said.

Grier said that after meeting with parents from that school, he is concerned that not all the costs of operating Rogers are being recorded in the right way. "We found there was a lot of miscoding [special ed teachers classified as regular class teachers]. We want a chance to get it right." That's why they're advocating a 15 percent cut in the unique PUA funds there for now, Grier said.

Trustees will also vote on reducing the subsidy to small schools -- saving $2.3 million -- which may result in shared personnel, including principals, at some campuses.

Also up for a vote will be a $4 million reduction in the Aspire program that gives out teacher bonuses. There was discussion of whether teacher bonuses are appropriate in such difficult financial times, or as trustee Anna Eastman put it: "paying bonuses when we're talking about losing people."

But trustee Harvin Moore argued that Aspire is important and needs to be retained to attract and keep top teachers. Although, he added: "It wouldn't kill me if it got smaller this year. I do think there's a lot to be said for saving jobs."

Grier said he plans to have his administration take a harder look at the program next year that has been criticized in the last year for giving out awards to almost all the teachers in the district.

Trustee Michael Lunceford asked if there had been any consideration given to approaching the cuts from the standpoint of zero-based budgeting, whereby the board could look at all the programs the district has and decide which ones to keep rather than approving what the administration wants to discard.

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